Wilderness Trip Leading Workshop In White Mountains

By Ravi Gupta.

The workshop was excellent for focusing on teaching the practical "nuts and bolts" of trip leading through first hand experience. Participants lead all hikes in rotation. As a result of spending the bulk of time on the mountainside as we tremendously improved abilities in all aspects of trip-leading expertise.

The program was based out of the Gay Outdoors Adventure Center in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Mike Boisvert led the activities and his co-leader was Jon Normand. Both of them are really neat guys who are extremely knowledgeable about the wilderness from having more than 25 years of outdoor experience. The two hardy souls who had joined together for this workshop were John-R & myself. I am extremely glad that I attended this workshop, even though it meant a 7½-hour drive from New Jersey. On both days part of the hikes were at the outer-boundary of my pre-workshop comfort zone. But I’m thrilled that these guys helped me achieve a significantly higher level of accomplishment

Arriving At The White Mountains & GO I arrived at the GO Adventure Center on Friday evening and by then the full moon was high in the sky and enveloping the White Mountains in a magical silvery-white glow. Added to this was the sound of the Mad River rising from the valley below. What a wonderful welcome that was for my first visit to GO.

Day –1 Saturday: Hiking The Blazeless Cone Mountain And Bushwhacking Over Large Trailless Sections

We started the day enjoying mugs of coffee and looking at beautiful fall foliage on hills surrounding the GO Center. The workshop started with a detailed, but focused & brief discussion about what to wear, what to carry, and how to pack it. Soon after that, we all suited-up in our nylon or Gore-Tex gear; a quick weather check by Mike, and we were off in one truck to the trailhead.

Not only is Cone mountain a blazeless hike but the trailhead is not marked either. Talk about picking a challenging hike for teaching outdoor leadership skills! Normally, the difficulty level of hiking up Cone Mountain is a little more than moderate. However, as we climbed, we realized that it had become an advanced level bushwhack trip because three days previously a Northeaster storm had passed through the area and it had uprooted trees all over the place and turned the forest upside down. In other parts of the forest the overgrowth had completely obliterated the trail. We had set out in relatively cool overcast weather that changed to some partially sunny patches. Finally it rained incessantly. Later that evening at the GO center other hikers told us that not too far away from there had been sleet, snow, & even some icy patches! We got to fully experience why the White Mountains are known for having the world’s most rapidly changing weather, and the importance of packing rain/winter gear even when setting out to hike on a bright sunny day.

By mid-morning we stopped for a snack and group photo beside a beautiful lake. This was a great place to discuss issues related to managing different types of group dynamics, for example a slow hiker on a strenuous trip or a fast hiker on an easy trip. This lead into an interesting discussion around issues related to individual and group safety.

The next part of the hike was a lot more demanding physically and the weather turned worse as well. Losing one's way would've been an easy. Soon we were all soaked and woolen hats, mittens and foul-weather gear were the need of the hour.

Going was slow, as the granite boulders, some butter smooth some moss covered, which comprised the Trail were now wet and rather slippery. There was little talk and a long internal journey of steadily looking at the feet of the person in front of us, and concentrating on where to put one's next step.

Sighting the summit cairn was a truly exhilarating feeling as we had really worked for it. The view of the surrounding valleys and distant mountains was spectacular. Everyone who's climbed the Whites knows how fickle the weather up there is, and how lucky it is to be able to get those extraordinary views. This was a great place for lunch.

The return hike was equally challenging – in fact more so, because the expectation was that it would be easier, which it was not. The challenge of finding ones way was more demanding than on the way up because the weather had deteriorated. At one point it was particularly tough going, especially mentally, and I think I had a sub-conscious anxiety attack (I felt a cramp in my leg), but it recovered quickly thanks to John-N’s support. This became a really good real-life lesson for a leader to pull themselves together quickly to be successful.

Throughout the hikes Mike provided tips and because we were a small group of two, there was great opportunity for extensive discussions and Q&A.

Overall, in spite of all the challenges we enjoyed fabulous views while hiking through amazingly scenic & secluded forests. All around us the forest was ablaze in fall colors of golden yellows, line green, and deep ruby-reds. The sights were just breadth taking. The whole experience was tremendously valuable and would do it again any day.

Being "hiking leaders in training", in the company of outdoor-gurus, gave us the confidence to successfully tackle the unexpectedly challenging terrain. It provided a great training opportunity for improving all aspects of outdoor navigation skills - learning to work with detours & obstacles, wandering off-trail and finding ones way back, interpreting terrain & plotting new routes, and sending scouts to determine the direction in which we should continue descending in bad weather.

On the way back John-R joked that the workshop leaders, Mike & John-N, looked like two happy parents watching their kids grow up. And grow up we did.

Returning back to the GO Center, the simple act of warming up in hot shower felt like the most luxurious experience. Later, having dinner together, there was tremendous sense contentment from having achieved more than one expected, and also two quite painful legs.

Sitting by the fireplace and reflecting on the hike — the experience of having successfully completed it certainly took me to a much-higher level of physical-accomplishment, emotional-conditioning, and trip-leading expertise. I’m sure it affected the others in equally deep ways. That night I went to bed in a snug bunk very thankful that we were not backpacking in the cold. I slept very well and woke up the next morning thinking that I could not wait to go back to hike Cone Mountain again!

Day – 2: Welsh-Dickey Hike Over Steep & Bare Granite Sections Normally Seen Only Above 4000 Feet

What a difference a day makes … We woke up to a brilliantly sunny day with a beautiful view of the Welsh-Dickey mountains we were going to hike that day. Through the huge cathedral ceiling window of the GO center we saw the Mad River gushing towards us, beckoning us to come out.

The workshop started at the GO center with a discussion about trip selection, posting, handling information requests, registration, and a range of other organizations issues that are necessary for a successful outdoor experience. After that we put on dry clothes (the indoor heating had done it’s wonders) and set off for the trail where another surprise awaited us. Where as yesterday’s trailhead was totally unmarked, today’s trailhead was like the Logan Airport parking lot – there were a ton of cars parked along the road. The combination of a great day and an easy hike attracts a lot of people here. Once we set off we did not see too many people and still enjoyed the seclusion.

Chiltern maintains the Welsh-Dickey trail and they have done an absolutely fabulous job. The trails are very well maintained and the blazes are really clear. Wherever it is not possible to put a blaze, there are cairns to help find the direction.

For us, it was more-of-the-same but quite a bit easier - both physically and mentally. The big difference was in the views which were just so-so fabulous in the sunshine. I felt incredibly lucky for the weather and the sights. I’ve been coming for the fall foliage to New England for ten years and have never experienced such breadth taking beauty. I can’t wait to introduce more people to this wonderful part of the America.

Returning back we had a great discussion about avoiding and handling emergencies. Mike’s extensive trip leading experience of 12 years came in really handy as he shared good & bad stories.

Eventually, sadly, it was time to say goodbye. We’d had a wonderful time, met some really great people and learnt things that I’m sure would one day be really useful for our own trip or for some other group we meet in the wilderness. Most of all for me, I had achieved a whole new, much-higher, level of outdoor expertise, and was taking away memories that I would cherish forever.

Ravi Gupta is a long-time wilderness enthusiast who has explored the national parks from Acadia in Maine, to Sand Key at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, to the Cascade Loop in the Pacific North West.

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